The HOMO-genization of Gay Themes in Films
It seems like only yesterday that our LGBT community was reveling in the growing number of big-budget movies and quality independent films featuring characters and storylines about people like us. Milk followed Brokeback Mountain, and TransAmerica, A Single Man, The Kids Are All Right, and most recently Beginners, which garnered an acting Oscar for Christopher Plummer, played in major movie houses across America.
But if you’re looking for noteworthy LGBT-themed films released in the last couple of years, the pickings are slim. The same goes for television, where at least three network sitcoms focusing on gay characters were dropped this year: Partners, which deserved the axe, The New Normal, which did not, and Happy Endings, a quirky ensemble piece that I will miss a lot.
I suspect that the recent decline of gay storylines in movies and TV is due in no small part to the HOMO-genization of American culture. As marriage equality marches steadily toward inevitability and even many ultra-conservative heterosexuals discover that the odd couple next door makes tolerable neighbors, we are finally achieving integration into the mainstream. The entertainment industry no longer views LGBT folks as particularly trendy, intriguing or even lucratively targetable as a market. We’re just a part of the diverse crazy quilt of groups that comprise American culture, no more or less fascinating than anyone else. In other words, our once groundbreaking stories of coming of age, finding love and overcoming oppression are becoming passé.
Our integration into the larger society may have some of us nostalgic for the day when we were outsiders, renegades, and scalawags. Our cachet was our mysteriousness, and some thrived on that status. One cinematic throwback to that era is HBO’s new Beyond the Candelabra about the dark relationship between closeted pianist Liberace and his boyfriend Scot Thorson, nicely played by Matt Damon. However, now that we are becoming more universally accepted (at least in western culture), our stories are less exciting to the Hollywood moguls who decide the fate of pitches for film and TV scripts.
On a positive note, our assimilation is making more mainstream filmmakers comfortable with incorporating remarkable gay, lesbian and transgender characters into their broader stories—narratives that may focus more intently on the heterosexuals the gay characters know, love, hate, or whatever.
One of my favorite movies from last year demonstrates the evolving approach to the inclusion of gay characters. I would have enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with or without its gay characters. But, thanks to Tom Wilkinson’s subtle, but poignant, portrayal of an aging man’s return to India in search of the long lost love of his youth, I will never forget the film. As one element of a half dozen intertwined stories, the scenes of rediscovery between the older and younger man, who is in an arranged marriage with an understanding woman, added a dimension of universality to the grand theme of never giving up on what and who you love. Marigold would have been a weaker story without its relatively brief gay subplot.
My film-buff friends, husbands Bill Opperman and Scot Cornwall, are longtime collectors and students of LGBT-themed movies. They screen every gay flick they can find, and they own a library of hundreds of titles, which they happily lend to their friends. Like me, they’re disappointed at the recent “paucity of films for us,” as Opperman puts it. “Certainly, mainstream releases like Milk or Brokeback were nonexistent last year.” But much of what has been lost in terms of productions targeted specifically to gay viewers— mostly sex-farce comedies— is not a loss at all, he suggests.
“We didn’t get Eating Out, Part 5 or Another Gay Prequel; however, I think I did see something for Bear City 2,” Opperman says, joking.
He is enthusiastic about some of the gay supporting characters he and Cornwall have seen in major films during the past year. Among the best, he says, is in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which received year-end kudos from critics and award-givers alike.
“The main character isn’t gay, and his love interest isn’t gay,” Opperman notes, “but her [step] brother [Patrick] is an out, proud, go-stick-it-where-the-sun-doesn’t-shine character who would have changed my life if I’d seen this movie or known someone like him when I was in high school.”
Ezra Miller, the 20-year-old actor who plays Patrick and who describes himself as queer in real life, told collider.com that it was “very exciting” to take on the role. In the past, he says, there has been “a lot of tokenization. … The token gay character is always so funny and so fantastic. That’s happened a lot. Or they’re often purely victims. There’s an element of that that should be depicted, but it was exciting to read the book, and then have a film where there’s such a strong, compassionate and confident gay character.”
It’s not necessarily the amount of screen time a character has that counts, Opperman notes: “Perhaps the most important movie event of the past year, from a gay perspective, was a brief moment in one of the most popular films, Skyfall. That’s right, the latest (and one of the best) James Bond giga-flick. The bad guy, played by Javier Bardem, has James Bond tied up in a chair. Bardem scoots his own chair closer to Bond and quite calmly puts his hand on Bond’s knee. Bond’s reaction is minimal. Bardem says, ‘I hope you don’t mind. It can be disconcerting the first time.’ And Bond replies, ‘What makes you think this would be the first time?’ Oh, My, God. The mind reels.”
As for this year’s film releases, look beyond the US for some quality LGBT-themed fare. The following are among the promising international titles washing up on our shores in the weeks and months to come—plus one American entry.
Mixed Kebab (2013): Just released, this Turkish film spins the story of a closeted gay Muslim boy from a traditional family in Turkey who falls for a blond Belgian boy. The film addresses issues of class, culture and bigotry.
Sexual Tension: Violetas (2013): This new Argentinian film explores the art of lesbian seduction through six different stories. In one, two guests of a hostel become roommates and more. In another, a shop clerk helps a woman uncertain about what dress to buy. In a third tale, two professional escorts discover that they are attracted to each other while they are in bed with a client.
Men to Kiss: Just out on video in America, this 2012 German romantic comedy promises lots of campy, slapstick fun. Long party nights in Berlin’s trendy clubs with drag queen Nina Queer and erotic evenings on the dining table—this is the chaotic nature of the relationship between conservative banker Ernst and bubbly Tobias. Can this charmingly odd couple last?
Five Dances (2013): Coming this fall, writer-director Alan Brown offers a story about a talented 18-year-old from Kansas who escapes his broken family to join a New York modern dance company. He is initiated into the rites of passage of a professional dancer’s life, with its discipline, camaraderie, and competitiveness—and meets his first love. There is also lots of wonderful dance footage, choreographed by the renowned Jonah Bokaer.
Purchase Bill Sievert’s comic LGBT-themed mystery novel Sawdust Confessions at amazon.com. Email Bill Sievert